Whoever dubbed Montana "Big Sky Country" never visited Texas hill country. Here, the sky is the color of a neon robin's egg, with the occasional cotton-ball cloud thrown in to break up the riotously blue monotony of it all. The sky melts smoothly into the horizon, creating the perfect backdrop for the surreal sights that unfold before those patient enough to wait: deer drifting like mirages across the open, undulating landscape; armadillos waddling across the sand like poorly thrown bowling balls with legs; and dreamlike visions that appear out of nowhere to land at your feet. This is fertile ground for experiences that, after the fact, make you wonder: Was it real or was your mind just playing tricks on you? It's a place made for asking odd questions about out-of-the-ordinary things and then waiting, hoping answers will come.
"Did you see any jackalopes out there?" It was the first time I'd asked the question, but it wouldn't be the last.
"Mmmm...," said the man who, along with his wife a few moments earlier, was innocently minding his own business hiking out of Lost Maples State Natural Area. He looked at his wife for guidance-or was he trying not to laugh? "What's that related to?" he asked.
"Well, it's a rabbit with antlers like an antelope," I told him, pulling a crumpled, dog-eared postcard from my pocket and holding it out to him. I looked over my shoulder and noticed that my husband, Mike, had wandered off, pretending not to know me.
"You only see those in cafes and stuff," the man said with a mild chuckle after a moment. "Someone's pulled a fast one on you!"
Undeterred, I thanked him and we -- Mike, our 2-year-old son, Austin, and I -- struck out on a trail that carried us through a rocky creek drainage tangled with live oak and then climbed over grassy hilltops. It was a perfect day: sunny, breezy, ideal for chasing down myths and separating fact from fiction.
This whole thing had started at a Stuckey's drive-in outside Waco, Texas. We'd stopped for gas, and while Mike inspected the pecan logs (a nut-covered sweet roll that looks better than it tastes), I
wandered over to the spinning postcard kiosk. That's when I saw it: a picture of a jackalope in green grass, standing on its haunches, alert, its impressive horned head held proudly upright. I was mesmerized, transfixed, curious, embarrassed to even pick up the postcard. But I did. It looked so cute, so real, but...nah, it can't be. But then, maybe it is?
As we drove down the Texas highway, I stared at the jackalope on the postcard, and wondered, and stared some more. I became consumed with thoughts of jacks hopping hither and yon across the land. But what kind of a landscape? All I could see on the postcard was a patch of grass. If such a magical critter does exist, where does it roam?
Somewhere near the Austin city limits, about the time Mike bit into his pecan log (and gagged like a cat with a fur ball caught in its throat), I realized that I had to know.
If you believe only what biologists tell you, then jackalopes aren't real. You won't find them listed in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. You will find an "antelope jackrabbit" that inhabits southern Arizona, but it doesn't have horns. That, however, doesn't dissuade people like Marshall Trimble, the official historian for the state of Arizona.
"The scientific name is Lepus temper a metalus," Trimble told me. His was the first name I had turned up when I started doing my post-Stuckey's research. "It's one of the rarest animals in the world." An expert on Southwestern folklore and author of the book Never Give a Heifer a Bum Steer, Trimble told me that jackalopes frequently were seen by cowboys riding the Western prairie in the 1800s, but now reports are few and far between. "Evidence of a jackalope was uncovered in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and there was a sighting reported near my hometown of Ash Fork, Arizona," he told me.
Talking with Trimble buoyed my spirits and helped me transcend my creeping skepticism and the snickering nay-sayers (Mike, primarily). If the jackalope truly is a hybrid of the jackrabbit and pronghorn antelope (or, according to some theories, mule deer), as Trimble had described, then the potential range for the animal is huge. The overlapping habitats of the two species extend throughout the Southwest, the Rockies, and the High Plains. But once you factor in urban sprawl, overgrazing, hunting pressure, hard winters, drought, and global warming, then, realistically speaking, the potential jackalope universe shrinks considerably.
Unless you're standing in Douglas, Wyoming, that is. In the self-proclaimed jackalope capital of the world, there's no shortage of true believers. "Little is known about the jackalope, but numerous sightings and historical accounts cannot be lightly discarded because of scant scientific evidence found to date," states the Douglas Chamber of Commerce Web site (www.jackalope.org). "Many Westerners feel that what physical evidence has been found has been hushed up by federal agencies in an effort to make cowboys look like liars."
Aha! A government plot! I knew then that I was on to something. Could the horny hare be the victim of a federal conspiracy? Time and money were no longer of concern in my search, nor was maintaining any hint of dignity. I had a full-blown quest on my hands. A jackrabbit with a rack became my holy grail, and neither state boundaries nor scathing comments (Mike again) could thwart me.
Big Bend, Texas
The rangers at Big Bend National Park are used to keeping a straight face when answering odd questions about their backcountry, such as whether a rattlesnake will crawl into your sleeping bag at night and if you can really drink water from a cactus if buzzards are circling overhead. Jackalope inquiries, though, raise a collective eyebrow even from the uniformed ones behind the visitor center counter.
"We had a man in here the other day insisting they were real, but generally there's not much talk about jackalopes," ranger Valerie Naylor told me as she filled out my backcountry permit, occasionally looking up to check my expression. "You hear more about them in the South Dakota Badlands. I used to work up there."
She shouted to a colleague down the hall, "There's a woman out here looking for jackalopes. Seen any?"
"Oh yeeeaaaah," a male voice drawled. "I saw one last night, on the highway outside the park."
Naylor smiled apologetically at her partner's obvious attempt to send me out of their jurisdiction. I figured the federal employees had been instructed-because of the government conspiracy and all-to throw jackalope seekers off the track. As I signed the permit, Naylor added, "You know, there are several different subspecies of jackalopes in the West. The ones you might find in west Texas would be from a mule deer, but the species in the Dakotas is probably related to the pronghorn antelope."
I was bolstered by Naylor's courageous willingness to discuss what may very well be a blackballed subject in her office. And since I wasn't sure whether the guys in the back offices were listening, I spared her the results of my research, which had revealed that there are various subspecies unique to the states of Texas, Arizona, and Utah. The experts in Douglas, Wyoming, even contend that in the 1800s, there was a subspecies larger and more aggressive than the elusive creatures of today.
I thanked Naylor and we then headed off down the Window Trail in Big Bend's Chisos Mountains. It seemed like a good place to troll for jacks, as well as for passing hikers who might have seen one. I pulled the Stuckey's postcard from my pack and stuffed it in my pocket, at the ready. It might have been the desert sun getting to me, or the fact that Mike wasn't trying to hide anymore, but I felt bolder, more confident.
As we shuffled down a steep slope into a canyon, a woman wearing a blue baseball cap huffed toward us. "Have you seen this animal?" I asked her, holding the postcard out to her.
"Oh my!" she laughed, struggling to catch her breath after the uphill hike. "That's a jackalope! I'm from Chicago, but I know what that is."
She trudged on past us, which I took to mean "no." We continued hiking downhill to a dramatic pour-off that looks out onto an endless ocean of Mexican mountains and desert. There we encountered four hikers, all wearing Birkenstock sandals and talking loudly in German. Unsure if they would understand my English, I pulled out the postcard and assumed the position.
One of the men, who was wearing a T-shirt with a pointy-headed, hollow-eyed alien on it, took my well-handled postcard. "Vow, dat is very veird. Vee haven't seen dat. Haf you seen any mountain lions?"
We decided to hike out and then drive to one of the park's more remote desert basins, assuming that jackalopes avoid windshield tourists and loud groups that hike in sandals. The vast, tabletop-flat playa we chose to explore for the next few days was punctuated with naked rock buttes and pinnacles and dense with Chihuahuan desert plants like agave, sotol, and prickly pear-good jack fare, I figured, assuming that the critters are vegetarians like their nonantlered brethren. Depending on your frame of mind, the sun-baked landscape was either barren and forbidding or alluring and mysterious. I leaned toward the latter.
The next morning, I hiked a short distance from camp to watch the sunrise. The silence was powerful and the landscape was streaked in muted pastels.
I wondered what a cowboy in the mid-1800s-recently transplanted from Missouri, perhaps-felt when he saw this waterless region for the first time. It must have seemed incredibly strange, and it was probably just as difficult for him to tell what was real and what imagined, especially after spending days alone under the hot sun, fending off mirages.
This place seems just as strange today to a hiker who's not used to the tricks the desert can play on you. Here, where everything alive either sticks or stings, a rabbit with horns seems entirely possible. In fact, it's downright practical from an evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest standpoint. I've heard detractors say that cowboys who claimed to have seen jackalopes were just drunk on cheap whiskey, but I'd say it was the land's wildness that intoxicated them. Well, I guess that account about the 150-pound, man-eating rabbit could have been some liquor talking.
On our hike out of Big Bend, the plodding pace-coupled with 15 pounds of water as well as Austin on my back-seduced me into a trancelike state. I was focusing on the burden, the heat, and how far it was to the car when suddenly Austin yelled, "Jackalope!"
I looked up in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of a small, furry rump about the size of a cat's as it hopped into the brush. Jackrabbit. Maybe. Or perhaps it was a jackalope and I was just in the wrong state of mind.
White Sands, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument in south-central New Mexico is a dune landscape comprised of sky and sand that shimmers in the noonday sun. Amazingly, jackrabbits, antelope, fox, and coyotes all thrive in this Sahara-like environment. The tricky part, in terms of wildlife watching, is that many resident mammals hide in burrows during the day and roam the dunes in the cool of the night. I assumed that jackalopes would, too.
We postholed through the powdery, white gypsum sand to our designated backcountry campsite, and I studied the burrows all around me. As I tried to figure out just what type of critter might inhabit this hole or that one, a strange feeling crept over me: It was as if I were being watched. I stopped, looked around, and saw nothing but sand. The only sounds were the wind humming across the dunes and the delicate smacking of grains of sand against my leather boots. Again I thought of the cowboys riding across this sparse Western country 150 years ago-no sign of humans, no discernible landmarks for 20 miles, and yet you know you're not alone.
That night in camp, my mind still spinning with thoughts of unseen eyes, I stared out at the seemingly endless dunes and watched moonlight play across the ripples in the sand. Perhaps it was the moonscape environs, or perhaps it was our proximity to the town of Roswell-so-called alien spaceship central-but all I know is that on this night, unlike other nights I've spent in desert locales, I felt that normally unfathomable, scientifically unexplainable animal life could indeed exist. Consider that biologists, learned men of letters, go into jungles and come out with never-before-seen species of bugs and toads, their stories winding up in such prestigious and credible journals as National Geographic.
With jackalopes, of course, there are a few logistical hurdles, to put it mildly. For instance, how would a jackrabbit with antlers maneuver through a burrow? And for that matter, how could a 2-foot-tall rabbit mate with an antelope in the first place? Personally, I consider such questions to be among the many mysteries of the universe, and certainly no reason to write off the rare hare. What pompous know-it-all would dare claim that we've discovered everything about our infinitely complex natural world?
I fell asleep listening to the faint crunchings of small animals moving about in the sand. In my dreams, a jackalope stared in the window of the tent, his distinctive ears and antlers silhouetted against the blue glow of the full moon.
A writer friend and amateur naturalist told me he'd seen jackalopes in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. "You never know when one will pop up around there," he confided.
The remote Chiricahua region has several things going for it in terms of being favorable jack habitat. First, it's home to the antelope jackrabbit, a likely first cousin and a species so well adapted to the Sonoran Desert that it can glean all the water it needs from eating grass and cactus. Second, the Chiricahuas were where the Apache warriors Cochise and Geronimo hid to successfully evade U.S. cavalry troops in the late 1800s. If the renegade jackalope is trying to avoid humans, this is the place to do it.
We hiked an area known as Cave Creek Canyon and, despite our best efforts, our search turned up no jackalopes. Apparently, the region continues to be a very good place for man and beast to hide.
We left the Coronado National Forest and decided to try the more exposed rock monoliths in Chiricahua National Monument. When we stopped to pay the fee at the entrance station, Mike, who had slowly become almost enthusiastic about the jackalope quest, plucked the Stuckey's postcard from the dashboard. He held it out for the gate attendant to see and, in a confident, man-on-a-mission tone of voice, asked, "Seen any of these 'round here?"
"Well, no, I haven't," the woman said, just as serious and trying to maintain her professional demeanor. As she continued to stare at the postcard, though, her authoritative air weakened and I thought I saw the corner of her mouth ever so slightly lift into a hint of a smile. "It looks like a rabbit. What is it?"
"It's a jackalope," Mike replied matter-of-factly, as if that were among the most common of words.
She glanced down at the "Jackalope Research Foundation" sign Mike had made and taped to the car door and must have surmised the official capacity under which we were operating. "Have there been a lot reported around here?" she asked.
Mike smiled mysteriously. We drove on.
Black Hills, South Dakota
When a buffalo raises its tail, it means one of two things: either the giant bovine is preparing to relieve himself or he's getting ready to charge. Not wishing to find out which, Backpacker Editor Tom Shealey and I dropped our packs, drank some water, and waited for the buffalo and calf to cross the trail we were all sharing. It was May in South Dakota's Black Hills and the lush, green grassland was teeming with wildlife. In just one day of hiking through Wind Cave National Park, we'd seen rabbits, prairie dogs, deer, elk, pronghorn, and plenty of buffalo. In such a wildlife-thick environment-it's often called America's Serengeti-jackalopes could go virtually unnoticed by the casual observer.
But we were anything but casual in our observations. Having been to these
Dakota High Plains before, Tom was well aware of the jackalope's prominent standing in this chunk of the country. Although he hadn't sought out the fabled animal on his prior trip, he'd long pondered the origin of a souvenir he had carried home: a mounted jackalope head that now hangs in his kitchen.
After witnessing the tight-lipped denial in the Southwest, I was amazed by how enthusiastically the people of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota embraced my questions. Not only is the jackalope deeply embedded in the legend and lore of this part of the West, but the critter seems to be an important source of economic development, too. Roadside attractions devoted to the jackalope abound, and in the town of Wall-home of Wall Drug, second only to Mt. Rushmore as the state's most popular tourist attraction-store window displays are brimming with horned rabbits, all stuffed and mounted in various lifelike poses. There's even a 15-foot-tall model out back, complete with saddle so the kids can ride and whoop it up while proud parents snap photos.
I visited one of these shops in Wall before our Wind Cave hike and chatted with a lady behind the counter who insisted that the jacks on the wall-there must have been 100 or more-were indeed the real deal. She proudly told me that jackalopes are "all over the place" in South Dakota. I nodded in feigned agreement, but I knew the only land suitable for a jackalope would be found deep in the wilderness, far from farm tractors and interstate highways and pavement...somewhere way off the beaten path, like Wind Cave.
Tom and I gave wide berth to a few more buffalo and eventually set up camp atop a hill, where we watched bison and elk gather in the valley below while the sun set. Prairie dogs squeaked relentlessly and poked their heads from their burrows while cottontails darted for cover. With so many different animal species sharing the same prairie, it was easy to see why some believe this is where the jackalope originated. It was just as easy to imagine that a jackalope was out there somewhere, probably watching us watching for him.
After a few days in pastoral Wind Cave, we drove east to the foreboding and ever-mysterious Badlands National Park. All the qualities that prompted frontier settlers and Native Americans to call this country "bad land" are what make it a spectacular backpacking destination for people who appreciate solitude and rugged scenery. Here, the rocky high desert clashes with grass-filled prairies to create a landscape that defies reason, befuddles first-time visitors, and, we hoped, hides jackalopes.
Tom and I sat on an outcrop and looked out on a wide gulf of sage-choked canyon where erosion-carved rock, striped and twisted by time and weather, was topped with lawnlike swaths of green grass. Swirling, gray-black thunderclouds, quite common during the "monsoon season" of May, were busily claiming the sky. The hardships of all the frontier settlers who attempted to tame this country, but failed, weighed heavy in my thoughts. Nature will always have the upper hand here.
"You know," said Tom after a long, deep silence, "all the regions where the jackalope is said to live are places that still have a sense of mystery to them." Then he fell silent again, as if giving the wind time to carry his thought out among the buttes and canyons and weathered spires, to see if there would be a reply.
The only response was the sound of raindrops pelting the red clay, and then the sudden smell of rich, damp earth. Perhaps out of habit, I pulled the postcard from my pocket and looked at it one last time. "I guess I should finally mail this postcard to somebody," I said to Tom. He smiled then we both leaned back and let the land work its magic.
Big Bend National Park, Texas: This remote stretch of Chihuahuan desert is home to a healthy population of both mule deer and jackrabbits, making the deer-rabbit hybrid the most likely jackalope species in Big Bend. The best jack tracking will be in the little-visited desert basins. Try Telephone Canyon or the Chimneys Trails. Contact: Big Bend National Park, (915) 477-2251; http://www.nps.gov/bibe.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico: These dunes offer unique jackalope siting possibilities. The oryx, an African antelope, was introduced into the adjoining White Sands Missile Range by New Mexico state officials, and the exotic ungulate now roams the park. It's quite possible that the dunes-adapted jackrabbit and the oryx have intermingled to create a jackalope species unique to this region. All hiking is cross-country in this trailless park, and backcountry camping is restricted to designated sites. For best results, schedule your jackalope search for a night with a full moon. Contact: White Sands National Monument,
(505) 479-6124; www.nps.gov/whsa.
Chiricahua Wilderness, Arizona: The mountain foothills and desert grasslands in this remote corner of southern Arizona are home to the antelope jackrabbit, the closest living relative of the jackalope that's a scientifically acknowledged species. Prime jack habitat is at elevations around 5,000 feet in semiforested areas, where mule deer are often seen. An extensive trail network in the wilderness offers various multiday loop possibilities. Contact: Coronado National Forest, (520) 364-3468; http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado/.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota: The vast majority of visitors to this park come to see the attraction underground: one of the largest known cave systems. That leaves the Black Hills aboveground wide open to solitude-seeking backpackers and jackalope hunters. Various subspecies of jackalope could be present here, since the park is home to both deer and pronghorn as well as to jackrabbits and cottontails. A 6.2-mile segment of the Centennial National Trail runs through the park, and there are a host of trails that can be pieced together for gentle, multiday hikes. Contact: Wind Cave National Park, (605) 745-4600; http://www.nps.gov/wica.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota: The Sage Creek Wilderness area is the best place for backpacking and wildlife watching here. The hiking is mostly bushwhacking. Call ahead to make sure that the 15-mile access road is open: in rainy weather, the road is too slick for travel and often is closed. Be warned: It's easy to sprain an ankle while navigating this eroded land. Many a twisted ankle has been attributed to stepping in a prairie dog's hole, but it was more probably due to a cantankerous jackalope tripping up a hiker. Contact: Badlands National Park, (605) 433-5361; http://www.nps.gov/badl.